A DVD review for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2013
“The streets of Paris, strewn with the carcasses of the mangled victims, have become so familiar to the sight that they are passed by and trod on without any particular notice. The mob think no more of killing a fellow man – one who is not even an object of suspicion – than wanton boys would of killing a cat or a dog.
“It’ll be our most Christmassy Christmas special yet,” adds Doctor Who producer Steven Moffat.
Of course not. A little joke. But it’s to remind us how what we expect from our favourite family drama series has changed during its five decades on TV. These days, every fifth or sixth episode is Christmas. When Doctor Who began, every third or fourth serial featured a much-loved mass homicide from history.
The quoted passage comes from the The Times of London, Monday 10 September 1792. It’s a report on the September Massacres, a bloody foretaste of la Terreur; the French state’s attempt to establish control over the population through the legal and largely unfettered use of violence – literally reigning through terror. It’s a revolution within a revolution. “Terror is nothing other than justice,” says the 35-year-old Maximilien Robespierre, President of the National Convention. “Prompt. Severe. Inflexible.” He believes it to be a virtuous form of government. The word of a virtuous man, he insists, should be enough to condemn a traitor. But Robespierre’s licence to murder is not used merely to help hasten the obliteration of the ancien régime. The merest whisper of treachery is enough to condemn any enemy – a business rival, an unfaithful lover, an enviably successful friend – to death by the guillotine, as grotesque an invention as has ever been conceived by man. By the summer of 1794, the air in Paris is thick with fear, paranoia, and the stench of thousands of rotting corpses heaped high at the Errancis Cemetery. Soon, Robespierre himself will be added to the pile. In two virtuous pieces.
Forgive the lecture. But it’s important to bring the ferocious brutality of the real Reign of Terror into focus. In 1964, this was considered a suitable playground for a children’s serial. Indeed, BBC Head of Drama Sydney Newman thought bleating bug-eyed robot men to be a far less appealing subject matter. And what makes Doctor Who’s teatime Terreur for tots so remarkable is the fact that it does not shirk from portraying the savagery of life in France in 1794. The first episode, especially, is a masterpiece of slowly unfolding horror.
But it begins with whimsy. The Doctor, in a particularly peevish mood, is convinced that he has brought homesick companions Ian and Barbara back to present-day England. They’re not so sure, and to prevent their pilot abandoning them in what could be anywhere or anywhen, they cajole him into joining them outside. Assured writing meets skilled performance in a lovely scene that would shine in any Doctor Who script from the last 50 years. Over one shoulder, Ian soft-soaps the Doctor. “Of course you’re in control,” he smarms. “And your important research must be completed.” Barbara is at the Doctor’s other shoulder, brushing away invisible dust, or possibly space dandruff. When it comes to Barbara, the Doctor’s a pushover. She’s his first human girl crush – and who can blame him? Meanwhile, William Hartnell hilariously double-takes between them. But despite this left-right charm offensive, it’s the suggestion that they might all go for a drink that finally wins the Doctor over. Perhaps it’s a little reflection of real life. Is this is how Hartnell’s colleagues dealt with his more dyspeptic mornings? “Of course you’re in control, Bill.” It’s easy to imagine many a studio quarrel settled over a lunchtime stout at the White Horse, Shepherd’s Bush.
This bright, optimistic start is designed to lend shadow to what follows, as, from the moment the Doctor’s curiosity takes over, the travellers fall into ever darkening danger. In a farmhouse some miles from Paris, they discover documents signed by Robespierre. “The Doctor’s put us down right in the middle of the French Revolution!” boggles Ian. “The Reign of Terror,” adds Barbara. And that’s our lot. We’re trusted – required even – to recognise the name Robespierre and immediately grasp the implications of this. (More explanation would doubtless be needed today; the Revolution has long been absent from the compulsory secondary school history syllabus. The subset of the population now most likely to know the name Robespierre is DWM subscribers. So, one point to Sydney Newman there.)
We meet on-the-run aristocrats Rouvray and D’Argenson. The militia is on their trail; a bickering band of bloodthirsty soldiers, grinning like Alsatians. Which, given that this is northern France, they may well be. Our bold Rouvray almost talks his way out of trouble. Playing on the memory of his lost patrician authority, he orders the soldiers to stand down. One man surrenders his musket, but our arrogant aristo pushes his luck. In an especially nuanced piece of writing, we’re give a flash of insight into both sides of the class conflict. “You can give them uniforms,” sneers Rouvray, “but they remain peasants underneath.” Without any order from his officer, one of the peasants shoots Rouvray dead. “A desperate attempt,” observes the commander. “And it very nearly worked.” The camera shies away as a second shot is fired. D’Argenson has been murdered. We know this from the soldiers’ gleeful laughter.
Already roaring with power, the episode accelerates toward a truly tremendous climax. Ian, Barbara and Susan are taken captive. “If any of them speaks,” says the commander, “shoot them.” Completely helpless, they can only stand in silence as their fate is decided by the squabbling soldiers. And then the farmhouse is set alight. But the Doctor is still inside! The fire spreads rapidly – through a series of generally excellent model shots – and the Doctor collapses, overcome by smoke. The camera pans up as the flames rise ever higher, and the incidental music – from Stanley Myers, and one of Doctor Who’s finest scores – playfully, sarcastically, quotes La Marseillaise. An anthem for life and liberty, just as death and disaster seem inevitable. Hold on flames. Roll credits. What a cliffhanger! They don’t make them like that any more.
The first episode is all about establishing the stakes we’re playing for. It’s made perfectly clear again at the start of the second, when we’re shown the falling blade of the guillotine. It’s mere moments of stock footage, but no less chilling for it. (And this is not some arcane threat from a bygone age. It’s worth remembering that the guillotine was used in France until 1977, and its blade was still hanging in the air until capital punishment was finally abolished in 1981.) “You have no rights,” barks a judge. He’s talking to Ian, Barbara and Susan, but the director has him looking right down the lens of Camera Two, directly at us. “You will be guillotined as soon as it can be arranged.” And with that, we are dragged away to the Conciergerie prison.
Here, writer Dennis Spooner – a true Doctor Who natural, giving us his first work – looks to leaven this brutal business with a few grains of humour. He’s hardly generous with it – though he will be in future – so perhaps script editor David Whitaker is staying his hand. We meet the lumbering jailer, his working class background conveyed through the broadest northern accent, and Jacqueline Hill does a wonderful comic reaction to his bad breath. But really, it’s the merest gesture toward fun. Although the Doctor and others later run rings round the jailer, he’s still a total horror, motivated by lust, greed and fear in turn. He leches over Barbara, offering her freedom if she – though he doesn’t use these words – has sex with him. Barbara merely turns and smacks him round the face. Marvellous.
“Lock ’em away!” bellows the jailer. “In there. It’s a cell I keep… for my special guests! Har har har!” Barbara and Susan are dragged into Doctor Who’s most bleak and dispiriting dungeon of all time. But it’s Ian who seems to get the premium accommodation. His cell is on film, and comes with a hot and cold running storyline. He’s tasked with finding an English spy, James Stirling. “Ask Jules Renan…” whispers a fellow prisoner with his dying breath. “At the sign of… Le Chien Gris.” But what’s with the sudden French? The TARDIS translation circuit must be on the blink – or, like Siri on the iPhone, doesn’t work well at low volume. (“I do not know what that means. Searching Index File for the sign of Lush He Angry.”)
The Reign of Terror comes with a neat little story of plot and counter-plot. It also gets to the heart of the dreadful irony of that time. Robespierre’s idea of justice was based on trust and duty, but no one could be trusted. However, our Doctor Who serial does seem clear on which class of citizen is the more virtuous. Barbara and Susan are rescued from the guillotine by upper-crust counter-revolutionaries Jules and “my young friend” Jean. They’re a sweetly affectionate pair who insist on calling each other by name with every other line (“I’ll go now, Jules.” “Take care, Jean.”), and they put their trust in the English travellers immediately, just as posh Rouvray and D’Argenson did before them. However, any ordinary working man we meet immediately proves devious, truculent and unreliable. The soldiers, the jailer, a roadworks overseer, a shopkeeper and a physician are all ready to abuse or denounce our heroes for personal gain, in the name of the glorious revolution.
But the story, having given us these rules, then subverts them to work its pivotal trick. Citizen Lemaitre, overseeing the Conciergerie, seems to be working for Robespierre, but turns out to be the English spy that Ian is looking for; our Mr Stirling having surely been dispatched on this undercover mission thanks to his having the biggest hooter north of Boulogne. Meanwhile, Barbara takes a shine to Jules’ friend in the resistance, the dashing Leon Colbert. Attentive and seductive, there’s a whiff of Pepé le Pew about Leon as he kisses Barbara’s hand and plies her with wine (“C’est magnifique, mon belle fromage!” he almost but doesn’t quite say.) But Leon proves a stinker in every sense. He’s a double agent for the State, and it was his treachery that led the soldiers to the farmhouse at the start of our tale. Soon, Leon has Ian chained up and ready for torture, but even he is allowed a sympathetic moment. “If you’d seen what France was like six years ago, you’d understand,” he says. “I do understand,” replies Ian. “But I can’t help you.” Actor Edward Brayshaw gives a wonderful, rich performance as Leon. It’s a tragedy that it’s almost entirely confined to the lost fourth and fifth episodes of this story.
So where is the Doctor amidst all this cruelty and tyranny? Early on, Susan tells us that the Reign of Terror is his favourite period of history. One might wonder how such a bloody time can be anyone’s favourite, but the Doctor clearly has a taste for revolution. It’s fitting, given how many he will go on to foment across the galaxy. He’s already managed a couple in the few weeks we’ve known him. However, the Doctor’s particular affection for the Terror is also a writerly sleight of hand, and one that shows Doctor Who undergoing a revolution of its own. Up to this point, the Doctor has needed history teacher Barbara’s insights to help him cope with life in the past. But Dennis Spooner requires the Doctor to be able to slip straight into a position of authority. And so it is that his special study allows him to know the lay of the land and be able to bluff his way at the highest level. We’ve long since taken this sort of thing for granted; that the Doctor knows everything, and can charm his way to the top. These days, he even has a piece of paper that can do the job for him. Here, it’s mostly played for fun, and leads to The Reign of Terror’s best gag, and it’s a visual gag. When the Doctor barters for the uniform of a Regional Officer of the Provinces, it seems to be only the matter of a jacket and a sash. But the writer and director are deliberately holding back the rest of the outfit for the Doctor’s big entrance at the Conciergerie. He comes down the steps like a Vegas showgirl, swishing his cape and with the greater proportion of an ostrich fanning out from the top of his head. Hartnell is clearly in his element.
Sadly, The Reign of Terror rather fizzles to a close in its sixth and final episode. Ian recalls another clue whispered to him in prison. “Nothing specific,” he says. “Just something about Barras, a meeting and a sinking ship. No! The Sinking Ship.” It’s hardly short on detail, so we’re left to wonder what Ian might have considered a specific message. Perhaps he expected a phone number. He and Barbara head to the pub in question, where politician Paul Barras is trying to recruit the next ruler of the country. As our heroes dress as innkeeper and wife, it all feels a little like a Morecambe and Wise sketch, or one of those clumsy plays that the contestants used to act out in the final round of The Generation Game. Napoleon Bonaparte turns up – thoughtfully dressed like Napoleon Bonaparte to aid recognition – and he and Barras make a deal for France while staring intently at the tips of each other’s noses, as if they’re about to kiss.
But there’s one last shock to come, one last reminder of the horror. Back in the fourth episode, the Doctor met with Robespierre and debated the merits of his policy of state-sponsored murder. Even Robespierre himself is granted an understanding emotional beat. “Do you think I want this carnage?” he wails. “What a memory I shall leave behind if this lasts!” And here is the memory of it, given back to us in a TV series for children that adults adore. In the final episode, we’re shown fate catching up with Robespierre. He is shot, off screen, but then dragged out before us, still alive, his hand clamped over his shattered jaw, and blood running through his fingers. It’s wildly violent and vivid by Doctor Who standards, and a last, sobering reminder of why the series doesn’t tackle real history any more.
It’s not that history is in any way less exciting than aliens and monsters, it’s just that if you subtract those aliens and their devious manipulations, then we’re only left with humans committing acts of barbarity against other humans, and often for no other reason than greed, envy and plain old-fashioned hate. Some monsters are simply too monstrous for teatime; especially now that Doctor Who looks more ‘real’ than ever. These old episodes, black and white and presented as if from under a proscenium arch, still have a power, but keep us at a safe distance. Today, with single-camera filming – and likely 3D filming coming soon – we’d be right in there; amongst the cruelty and the violence, pushed up against it. It can’t be done. Especially not with Christmas coming round as often as it does. You don’t want Robespierre’s splintered jaw with your sherry trifle.
But then, perhaps it’s right that not every Doctor has been allowed free access to the more grown-up bits of history. It’s certainly fortunate that it was his first incarnation who blundered into Paris at this time, and not his third. The Third Doctor would share a cheeky Beaujolais with the dandy Leon Colbert, and then get the good guys and the bad guys thoroughly confused. “Jehosaphat!” he’d say. “I should have known he’d be behind all this!” Jo Grant would be slow on the uptake. “Who, Doctor?” she’d squeak, and her friend would have rubbed the back of his neck in frustration. “Did you also fail basic French at that school of yours?” he’d have huffed. “Lemaitre, Jo!”
The big bonus promise of this DVD is an attempt to recreate the lost fourth and fifth episodes of The Reign of Terror using animation. This has clearly drawn upon the efforts of many talented and hard-working artists, to whom must go much praise. Unfortunately, the finished product, due to how it has been compiled and directed for presentation here, can only be judged – with a heavy heart – a failure.
The surviving camera script for part four, The Tyrant of France, tells us that there would have been 52 camera shots in an episode of roughly 24 minutes’ duration. So there would have been a shot change, on average, around twice a minute. At one point in the animated episode four, the shot changes three times in one second. Now, this animation shouldn’t follow the original camera script verbatim, and one understands that additional close-ups are necessary to draw our focus. But here, our ‘camera’ spins wildly around the room. Was there no basic storyboard to work from? The result is frenetic, bewildering at best, and thoroughly distracting at worst. You try to follow the story, but each needless shot change is like someone bellowing in your ear. Early in the fourth episode, Barbara is concerned that Susan is running a fever, but Leon Colbert tells her not to worry. “We’ve done all CUT! we can CUT! Barbara CUT!” says Leon. “Oh CUT! it’s CUT! probably CUT! a chill CUT!” he adds. But Barbara thinks Susan needs a doctor. “You must CUT! know someone CUT! we can trust?” The director seems to have no sense of how many shot changes the poor human brain can cope with. It’s a quiet little character scene.
The animation is also disappointingly inconsistent. In a sequence at the Conciergerie, the Doctor changes face from shot to shot. One moment he looks like an acquisitive turnip, the next a rather crestfallen pufferfish. Within the generous freedoms of the rules of caricature, each of these might be said to be fair descriptions of William Hartnell’s Doctor. But it’s the flicking back and forth between them that’s the terrible distraction; and then there’s the ‘rotoscope’-traced moments of sudden movement, which feel like they come from another place again. It’s as if the director is cutting madly between two or three different animations of the episode, each tackled in a different style.
What most boggles the mind is that, six years ago, the Doctor Who DVD range gave us animated versions of the two missing episodes of The Invasion. It was a production superior to this in every way; calm, consistent and confidently unshowy. Why the huge leap backwards? Some will claim that any reconstruction is better than none, but surely it’s reasonable to at least expect some progress in the field? Some will also say that to call this project a failure is too cold. In justification of that, it’s worth remembering that the sole purpose of Doctor Who is to transport us to another place, even for just a few fleeting moments – to dislocate us from the here and now. It takes a huge amount of work, from every department, to make the entire production process of Doctor Who dissolve away. One misspoken line, one untucked monster costume. An unconvincing model, green screen or unsuitable soundtrack. Any of these things – and a thousand others – will bring us crashing back to our ordinary sofa in our ordinary living room. But this animation makes no effort at discretion. It’s trying too hard to be noticed. It’s just too… animated. For any hope of feeling transported to the summer of 1794 with the Doctor and his friends, then your only option is to, well… close your eyes and just listen to the soundtrack. And if that isn’t a failure, then what is?
The production documentary Don’t Lose Your Head focuses on The Reign of Terror’s sometimes troubled days in the studio, with help from the detailed memories of Carole Ann Ford (Susan), William Russell (Ian) and production assistant Timothy Combe. Director Henric Hirsch suffered a breakdown on the recording day of the third episode, but the identity of exactly who stepped into his shoes remains a tantalising mystery. It’s a shame that Hirsch could never work on Doctor Who again, because the opening episode of this story proves that he knew his business. However, Carole Ann Ford, for one, certainly found him a struggle to work with. Brace yourself for her vivid retelling of the “Why so maudlin?” story on this documentary. It’s not for the faint of heart.
The clips from The Reign of Terror used in the documentary look like they’ve been filmed through a sock and then scrubbed with wire wool, which brings home the miracle of the restoration work that has been done to the episodes as presented on this DVD. When Lemaitre asks for “the execution list” at the prison, so clear is the picture, we can now see through the back of the sheet of paper that it is neatly titled EXECUTION LIST. Later, he asks for “the execution figures”. Equally neatly: EXECUTION FIGURES. Say what you like about Robespierre, but he kept tidy paperwork. However, there is a small price to be paid for this new clarity. Now, for the first time, we can spot a member of the production team lurking in the background of the first episode. Or perhaps he’s another time traveller, more skilled at staying out of trouble than our lot.
Another tremendous set of ‘Info Text’ subtitles really brings home the magic that was being worked in Studio G at Lime Grove in the summer of ‘64. Doctor Who had been in continuous production for a year, and there were still ten more weeks to go before a break. Every Friday between 8.30pm and 9.45, in a space about the size of a Sainsbury’s Local, another episode would be staged like a play, with even the incidental music played live into the studio. The subtitles take us through every clever trick the team used to weave their adventure in space and time. One favourite detail is that, on Friday 14 August 1964, the day William Hartnell recorded the Doctor’s great promise (“Our destiny is in the stars. Let’s go search for it.”), producer Verity Lambert finally pinned down BBC Controller of Programmes Donald Baverstock and secured a commitment to Doctor Who’s future. 13 more episodes, with an option for 13 more. And – though he never know it – an option for 722 more. And counting.
The audio commentary brings forth some new voices – Jeffrey Wickham (Webster), Neville Smith (D’Argenson) and the great Ronald Pickup, who plays the treacherous physician – with a well-prepped Toby Hadoke on hand to get the best out of them. Another commentary, fascinating in a different way, runs parallel to the long-lost fifth episode, and features ‘missing episode hunters’ Paul Vanezis and Philip Morris.
Morris sounds like a hero for our times. As with many Doctor Who fans of a certain age, the habit of ticking Target books from a list fostered a natural desire to collect the set, to fill the gaps. But when, in 1981, DWM published a list of Doctor Who episodes missing from the BBC Archive, his world was rocked. We all share the sense of dismay that there are these great holes in our common history, but Morris is resolved to bloody well do something about it. As an adult, his work on an offshore oil rig has taken him around Africa. Now, with that experience, he’s formed a company to work with TV archives around the world to help preserve their material.
A recent article in DWM reminds us that many of these archives are in very dangerous parts of the world. There are Home Office Advisory notices issued against travel to the likes of Libya, Uganda and Ethiopia – all of which once broadcast The Reign of Terror and many other lost episodes. But Morris seems determined to leave no stone unturned. “I don’t believe in a no-win scenario,” he says. There’s such a wonderful emotional through-line to this; from the boy who loved Target books to the man knocking on the door of an old TV station down a hot and humid back street in Nairobi or Lusaka. ‘Raiders of the Lost Archive’ is the old cliché headline for a ‘missing episodes’ story, but never has the heroic, exotic sense of it felt more true than here. You feel that if those episodes are there to be found, then Morris is the man who’ll find them.